Top 5 (Sorta, Kinda) Christmas Movies

“Just once, I’d like a regular, normal Christmas.” — John McClane, Die Hard 2

For whatever reason(s), I have never been a big fan of “classic” Christmas movies (e.g., It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol) Once upon a time, I’m pretty sure I saw It’s A Wonderful Life all the way through; probably some version of A Christmas Carol, too. They are certainly great stories, and I can see the old-timey appeal. Still, I rarely-if-ever have a desire to watch them — especially the black-n-white stuff. I’m just not that sentimental, and I rarely go for “heartwarming”. I don’t care for a lot of what passes for humor these days, either, so National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (or any NL films, for that matter) are off my list. A Christmas Story is a modern classic, but I think I only ever watched part of it. May have to give it another try….

What I have for you today, though, are a few of my favorite genre films that, while not exactly “Christmas movies”, they do take place on or around Christmas. As The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen calls them, they are “Christmas-adjacent” films. The holiday aspects may factor into some scenes, but the plot or “message” is hardly of a Yuletide flavor, either secular or religious. I like them because they are fun, genre flicks, regardless of any Christmas connection.

So,… shall we begin?

Young Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) is stranded at home by himself, while his large family goes on Christmas vacation in Europe unknowingly Kevin-less. When two bungling crooks attempt to burglarize the supposedly empty house, they have no idea who or what they’re up against in the mischievously creative 10-year-old. I doubt director Chris Columbus or Fox knew the hit they would have on their hands, either, or the near-iconic status Home Alone (1990) would reach. What a lot of people forget about now, though, is the Christmas link. (I vaguely thought I remembered it but had to verify.) Obviously, this is not exactly sci-fi/fantasy, but it does sort of fit the action-adventure genre (at purely PG levels), which is why I included it in this list. I wouldn’t recommend it for younger kids or those who already tend to get into trouble, but it is fun for us older kids. Time for me to throw it on the re-watch list!

The (mis)adventures of L.A. cops Riggs and Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon (1987) surely launched stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover to superstar status. (Although, Gibson had already hit it big with the Mad Max franchise, and Glover had done The Color Purple and a couple other notable films.) It was the first of four movies in the film series, which eventually led to a now-airing TV series. The somewhat eccentric Gary Busey’s role as the formidable villain “Mr. Joshua” probably helped his career, too, for a time. The film is an ’80s action classic and beloved by millions. But, sometimes we forget that the events of the movie occurred around Christmas-time. Remember the wreaths at the police station, and the tree, lights, etc., at Murtaugh’s house? Heck, the music accompanying the opening credits is “Jingle Bell Rock”! Anyway, an awesome, action-packed, genre-defining, Christmas-adjacent buddy-flick!

I love the Rocky films! (Well, less so the last two.) The blood, sweat, and tears, but also the themes of personal growth, perseverence, integrity, redemption, pressing on despite tragedy, etc. Of course, I always get a thrill when good-guy Rocky “rises up” to teach the arrogant “bad guy” a lesson. Finally, the theme music in these films is terrific! (The main theme and “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III are the best!) Of course, Rocky IV (1985) also introduced us to Dolph Lundgren as the towering Soviet fighter Ivan Drago (aka “The Siberian Express”), whose devastating punching power later earned him the nickname “Death from Above”. Not only was the movie a great action-drama, but it served as a fun microcosm for the U.S.A. vs Soviet Union of the late Cold War era. But, let’s not forget that the film’s unsanctioned fight in the Soviet Union took place on Christmas Day, and we can see the decorations at the Balboa home back in the States. Счастливого Рождества!

Yep, Gremlins (1984) is a Christmas-adjacent movie, and shame on you if you forgot.

Keep him out of the light, don’t get him wet, and never, ever feed him after midnight! If ever there was an object lesson for the importance of following instructions, this would be it. Alas, when young Billy got his new pet Mogwai, he wasn’t very careful and, um, bad stuff happened. Namely, he unleashed a horde of diminutive but “malevolently mischievous monsters” on his home town. Naturally, it is all played to comedic effect, even when property is destroyed and people are seriously injured or even (presumably) killed. That’s why the film, which spawned a sequel a few years later, is classified as “Comedy, Fantasy, Horror”. It’s a somewhat unusual mix, but it fits, and it works for this particular adventure in scary-silly violence and wanton destruction. Featured talent include Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller, Judge Reinhold, Keye Luke, and Hoyt Axton. And, yes, it’s Christmas, as evidenced by, for example, the opening credits over scenes of the holiday-festooned center of town, Christmas trees being bought and decorated, and all accompanied by the sounds of Christmas seasonal tunes. (“Baby, come home…!”)

There was no way I could do this list without including every action fan’s favorite “Christmas movie”, Die Hard (1988). Bruce Willis’ turn as the perpetually-smirking, smart-mouthed, tough-as-nails NYPD cop, John McClane, earned him the love and respect of a generation. It was a role he was made to play, and I’m sure he has (mostly) loved playing him in all five films in the franchise. (There is a rumored sixth on the way, too.) There are also memorable performances by Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, et al., as well. Of course, as fans of the film know, the action begins when McClane flies to L.A. on Christmas vacation to join his wife at her company’s Christmas party. Mayhem ensues when a group of well-armed, yet high-tech, thieves take everyone (except McClane) hostage, while they carry out a major heist. Or, try to, ‘cuz McClane starts kickin’ butt (and punching and shooting everything else) and generally ruining the bad guys’ Christmas. Yippee-ki-yay!! (P.S. The first sequel, Die Hard 2 (1990), is equally entertaining, imho, and also takes place around Christmas. So, consider it packaged in with the original on this list.)

OK, I decided to throw in a couple bonuses that are more… traditional:

I’m not really a Will Ferrell fan. Most of his stuff is just too silly for me. And his “Buddy” character in Elf (2003) is incredibly silly, naive, etc. So, why do I like this movie? Despite it all, “Buddy” is still somehow charming and lovable, as the big-hearted goof who retains the child-like innocence most of us have lost and need to get in touch with again. Or, something like that. Throw in wonderful performances by the enchanting Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Peter Dinklage, and others, and you have a wonderful, feel-good movie for the holidays. (Plus, I just love the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” scene.)

 

Now, The Nativity Story (2006) is neither action-adventure nor sci-fi/fantasy. (Though, I’m sure some would say the source material is, at least in part, fantasy. I disagree.) However, perhaps the supernatural aspect of the virgin birth and later events in the story of Jesus of Nazareth are sufficient to qualify it here. Still, my appreciation for it lies in that it is one of the most historically accurate and true-to-the-source-material of films based on events described in the Bible. It’s not perfect, but it comes close. It is well-done, and the casting does not suffer from “whitewashing”. Genre fans will also like that it features Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ciarán Hinds, and Alexander Siddig.

There are several more Christmas-adjacent movies, of course, and I’ve even seen and enjoyed a few — e.g., Batman Returns, Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Edward Scissorhands, L.A. Confidential, et al. In fact, those five I just mentioned might very well go on the list (though probably not in that order), if I expanded it to a Top 10. What are some of your favorites? (Check out this handy list for some help.)

Oh, yes,… “Welcome to the party, pal!”

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Review of The Punisher (Netflix Series)

I realize that most interested parties have probably already watched the show weeks ago, but I just finished it last week and wanted to throw a few thoughts out there. If you haven’t watched it, yet, beware that there may be a few SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

I’m gonna be honest and say up front that this wasn’t the Punisher I wanted to see. Jon Bernthal (5’11”,b.1976) obviously bulked up for the role to add a little muscle and definition. However, in addition to being shorter than I’d like — Marvel’s wiki lists the character at 6’3″ — he wasn’t nearly as broad-shouldered and beefy as I feel Frank Castle should be. At least, that’s how he is usually drawn in the comics. (The same criticism goes for Thomas Jane (5’10”,b.1969), who nevertheless played a convincing Castle in 2004’s The Punisher.) It’s part of what makes him so physically intimidating.

This version, while sufficiently bad@$$ and coldly efficient in the midst of battle, too often (over the course of the series) revealed him to be vulnerable and even unsure of himself. I suppose this effort to “humanize” the character is understandable, if Netflix is hoping to maintain a broad(er) audience. His missing his family and repeated nightmares about their deaths are also understandable, especially if that tragedy only happened a year(?) or so earlier. I certainly don’t mind watching a hero, even a violent vigilante, struggling emotionally with trauma or his “mission”. But, what I would have preferred to see was less vulnerability and… whatever else that was, and more hard-edged, laser-focused planning, hunting, and slaughtering of bad guys. Granted, there was some of that, and it was great. But, there should’ve been more of it. (Heck, there was even one episode where Frank wasn’t involved in any fights!)

As for the villains of the piece, while it was a somewhat interesting story, the whole corrupt-CIA-and-psycho-veterans thing was tired, cliche, and seemed like a bit of a copout. The fact that it was mostly tied to Castle’s past and the death of his family made some sense, I suppose. But (and I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised), they changed part of his “origin story” drastically. The comics version, as many of you know, was that Frank’s family was slaughtered in Central Park by some overzealous Mafia gunmen. Frank survived but couldn’t get justice through the system, so he adopted the ‘Punisher’ persona in his “one-man war on crime” to eliminate as many mobsters, drug dealers, etc., as he could. THAT is the story I wanted and expected to see in this series. We saw a bit of it in season 2 of “Daredevil”, and early on in “The Punisher” he killed several members of the Nucci crime family. So, I am hoping that this will be followed-up on in season two of “The Punisher” (assuming there is one).

We already knew from things like “The Walking Dead”, Fury, and Baby Driver, that Jon Bernthal can play tough, intense, bad@$$ characters. And he did a fine job in that respect in “The Punisher”. However, his performance at times was so reminiscent of his co-star from “The Walking Dead”, Andrew Lincoln, that I had to look twice to make sure it was Bernthal. (Rick? Is that you?) On another note, his yelling/roaring at times while firing a machine gun was too much like Rambo (or some other Stallone or Schwarzenegger character), and it annoyed me. I will also say that I prefer Bernthal with a regular (though short) haircut and not the supershort, nearly bald look, or shaved on the sides.

Revah, Bernthal, Barnes, Moss-Bachrach

The David “Micro” Lieberman character (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) was done well, yet his departures from the comic version — starting with the overweight computer hacker “Microchip” Lieberman becoming a lanky CIA analyst who is presumed dead — bugged me. The chief bad guys — Agent Orange / Rawlins (Paul Schulze) and Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) — were well-played and sufficiently detestable, particularly Russo’s betrayal. The Agent Madani character (Amber Rose Revah) was good at times, yet annoying at others. The sex scenes between her and Russo were gratuitous. I really liked the supporting character of Curtis Hoyle, played by Jason R. Moore, and I hope to see him again. (Maybe Moore will show up in something else, too.) The rest of the supporting characters were pretty good, too, especially the always enjoyable Jaime Ray Newman. The sub-plot with Lewis Walcott (Daniel Webber) was somewhat irritating, but I think that was partially due to Webber, who often plays this type of disturbed/ing character. (E.g., Lee Harvey Oswald in “11.22.63”.)

Despite these faults, overall it was a pretty good solo outing for ol’ Frank. As hinted at before, the firefights and hand-to-hand combat scenes were bloody, intense, and generally satisfying for this action-lover. (Not quite as good as those in “Daredevil”, but decent.) The acting ranged from satisfactory to quite good, and the plot, though not great or without holes, was definitely passable. I also liked the opening theme music, which somehow fit the tone of the show quite well.

For what it’s worth, I’m one of those people who liked “Luke Cage” (I love big, superstrong guys) better than “Jessica Jones” (I generally dislike surly, cynical drunks). That said, I would rate “The Punisher” about the same as Cage — roughly a B, maybe B+.

The Harsh Realities (and Strange Appeal) of Stranger Things

Hey! I wasn’t sure I’d have a post for this week, since I flew home late last night from my vacation and haven’t gotten back to my regular schedule, yet. But, then I came across this review of “Stranger Things”, which I thought I’d share. I haven’t watched the show, but Thomas P. Harmon’s thoughtful and articulate review piqued my curiosity, so I may have to add it to my viewing schedule.

I’m just going to cite a few sections here and there, where Harmon gives some helpful background, observations, and/or assessment of the series. It is somewhat SPOILERish, though no major details are revealed….

“Netflix’s return to Hawkins, Indiana, [for its upcoming second season] should prove a test as to whether the show can maintain what made it a standout in this new media environment: namely that it resisted many of the sentimentalizing or dehumanizing elements of contemporary film and television. It did this without preachiness, without subservience to politically correct pieties or ideological dogmatism. The beating heart of Stranger Things is its moral depth and seriousness, which is the strangest thing about it…. [T]he show stars children but is intended for adults, and [it] neither sentimentally overemphasizes cheap innocence nor wallows nihilistically in degradation, violence, and gratuitous sex….

Stranger Things leans heavily on its 80s milieu. The kids on bicycles, the painstaking attention to period set design, the dated hairstyles, and the 10-hour Dungeons & Dragons sessions are all there. The show slyly cultivates a sense of loss about those things: We have traded the imaginative, social experience of D&D for passive screen time in which the game does the imagining for you. We are also drawn to the unencumbered freedom the children have tearing around the town of Hawkins, and to the preteen-friendly space the boys set up in the basement of the Wheelers’ house. There they can exercise a limited sovereignty appropriate to children on the cusp of adolescence without constant adult intervention and supervision. Still, the sense of loss is not without a healthy critique: We quickly recognize that the children’s freedom is a product of parental neglect….

The show’s fundamental lack of sentimentality is evident when comparing it to the master of self-conscious sentimentality, Steven Spielberg. His films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and especially E.T. were obvious source material for the plot, characters, and look of Stranger Things. The kids on bikes, the realm of children’s freedom away from neglectful adults, the sinister government scientists up to no good, and the elfin visitor from another place who combines touching vulnerability with extraordinary power, are all there. E.T. and Eleven even disguise themselves in blonde wigs and perch on bicycles driven by our boy heroes. But that is where the similarities end. As if they sensed, appropriately, that their Gen-X audience would recoil without it, the Duffer brothers added the realism and perception of modern film sensibility — without the Spielberg touch….

Unlike the scientists in E.T., the adults in Stranger Things don’t characteristically lack feeling or love; they either lack the knowledge of how to act on their love appropriately or the will to do so. They lack virtue, in other words. Their imaginations and desires have been stunted by a soul-sucking suburban existence that demands very little of them outside the very basics. The boys, on the other hand, are capable of helping Eleven because they live more fully relational lives…. [T]heir highly developed imaginations have both prepared them to accept the existence of “stranger things” and to deliberate about what to do in the face of them. They have received an imaginative training in courage, which prepares them to face the dangers of searching for Will in the face of quasi-demonic powers and of protecting Eleven from the adults who wish her harm. This is no sanitized vision of childhood emotional innocence versus the unfeeling reason of adulthood….

Despite the truncation of parenthood we see in the series, it is also true that there are glimpses of better things. When we see fatherhood and motherhood exercised well, it is in remarkably traditional terms…. At the conclusion of the series, even the hapless Wheelers and the distracted Joyce have changed the way they interact with their children. The adolescents’ domain in the Wheelers’ basement is left mostly intact, but now Jonathan Byers appears in it at the end of the evening to find his brother and drive him home. The freedom of the children is fundamentally upheld, but also moderated by the prudent — but not intrusive — attention of their elders.

Stranger Things doesn’t just avoid the sentimentalism and dehumanization of too much popular entertainment; it pushes back against it. The first season was deeply moral without being moralistic. In so doing, it worked against the regular assaults on innocence and human dignity in much of what passes for entertainment today. If this season can avoid those same cheap traps, it will continue to be a standout in today’s “golden age” of serial television.”

I encourage my readers to read Harmon’s full article.

Have you watched any “Stranger Things”, yet? If so, what do you think of Harmon’s review? If not, did this review make you more likely to watch it or less so?

Initial Impressions of “Star Trek: Discovery”

“First Officer’s Log: Stardate 1207.3. On Earth, it’s May 11, 2256 — a Sunday. The crew of the USS Shenzhou has been called to the edge of Federation space to investigate damage done to one of our interstellar relays….” — Commander Michael Burnham of the USS Shenzhou

Immediately prior to the above voiceover are the opening credits and theme music for “Star Trek: Discovery” (DIS or DSC), and I have to say, it’s not bad. Neither the visuals nor the music left me with goosebumps exactly, but they weren’t bad — especially, the nice homage to the original series’ theme at the very end. Many (including myself) would have preferred starscapes and swooshing through space, like the shows prior to “Enterprise” (ENT) had. But, I understand why they went with something different, and I thought it was kinda neat. At least, there weren’t some semi-sappy lyrics to go along with it, since the theme was all instrumental and, I thought, in the same vein as its predecessors.

Well, that’s my opener. Since I have only viewed the pilot, which basically serves as a prologue for the rest of the series, the rest of my review will, of course, be limited to the people and things introduced so far in those two episodes.

SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER!

I don’t have much to say, really, about the casting. Probably the best choices were James Frain as Sarek and Doug Jones as Saru. As much as I like Michelle Yeoh, and she makes a fairly worthy captain, I found her accent distracting. Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays Cmdr. Burnham, isn’t bad, but I keep thinking of her character from “The Walking Dead”. She has an interesting character-arc, though, and I hope it allows her to stretch her acting capabilities and provides the audience a well-fleshed out and nuanced character. I suppose Christopher Obi did fine as T’Kuvma, but all he really did was walk around and give speeches in a near-staccato style. The rest of the characters were not seen/heard much or weren’t even introduced, yet (e.g., Capt. Lorca, Lt. Stamets, and the Discovery herself).

I have to say, I’m not thrilled with the Starfleet uniforms. You would have thought they’d be much closer in appearance to those in the original “Star Trek” (TOS), which begins 10 years later. Instead, they look much closer to the blue jumpsuits from ENT. Those wraparound collars look none too comfortable, either. Still, that’s nothing compared to the ornate plating and spikes on the Klingons’ outfits, including what looks like a double-skirted outer jacket. Of course, some of that seems to be specific to T’Kuvma’s house, since the other house representatives had their own styles. (Aside: Why did only 8 of the 24 houses join the conference call?) They all seem a bit overwrought and impractical, though. Even the bat’leth is too ornate, though that might be a ceremonial version. I wonder if the united houses will adopt a less ornate and more homogeneous style….

Same goes for the Klingon ships. The familiar Klingon designs were absent, though that may be explainable from having been a fractured empire, each house developing its own vessels. T’Kuvma’s ancestral vessel, the “Sarcophagus Ship”, seemed particularly ornate, like a cathedral — at least, inside that large room he kept returning to. (I assume that was the bridge, though I didn’t hear or see any obvious workstations or displays.) The real question, and there have been many to point this out, is “Where the heck did he get cloaking technology?!” This series is supposed to take place in the original timeline, and it has long been established that the Klingons wouldn’t get that tech until many years later, probably from the Romulans who sold them warships. That, my friends, is an anachronism, and it’s enough to set long-time Trek fans’ teeth on edge.

T’Kuvma at podium

Another big issue for Trekkies/Trekkers is the appearance of the new Klingons. The “Blingons” from the JJ-Trek films were bad enough, but at least they were (mostly) recognizable as Klingons. This new version, however, is almost a totally new race. Sure, they still speak Klingonese; they’re still a warrior race who sing of Sto-Vo-Kor and honor Kahless the Unforgettable; and they still have pronounced cranial ridges. (This last was an innovation introduced in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (TNG), but they were still recognizable and the “enhancements” were explained in ENT.) But, the elongated skulls, absence of hair, double nostrils, pigmentation variation, and additional physiological modifications, along with the aforementioned uniforms (diversified in color and style), are going to be darned difficult to explain — again, assuming this series truly takes place in the original timeline (as opposed to JJ-Trek’s Kelvin timeline), as producers have told us. I wouldn’t mind them as a totally new race. But, beyond the new writers/producers wanting to make their mark on the franchise (or something like that), I see no reason for this extreme redesign of an established and beloved alien race. This is what sports fans call an “unforced error”.

Allow me to detour briefly and say that the F/X on this show look great! Thanks to CGI and a number of other advances over the years, the show looks light-years ahead of TNG, “Deep Space Nine” (DS9), and even “Voyager” (VOY).

Back to Starfleet…

The Starfleet vessels and technology look fantastic, for the most part. As with the uniforms, though, the ships look much closer in appearance to those seen in ENT (set ~100 years earlier) rather than those in TOS (set 10 years later). This is most obvious from the gray metal exteriors and bulkheads to the blue lighting and displays. (Btw, the Shenzhou has an awefully large bridge for only a medium-sized ship.) The tech appears a mix of more analog-looking stuff, which would fit both ENT and TOS, and some much more advanced-looking, digital stuff. The latter is disconcerting, because it shouldn’t look more advanced than a Constitution-class vessel (e.g., USS Enterprise from TOS), or even its refit decades later.

Another major concern is the anachronistic use of somewhat advanced holographic imagery to communicate long distances, whether between Starfleet ships/stations or from a Starfleet ship to a Klingon ship. As fans of previous Star Trek series know, this technology is not supposed to be so advanced at this point in the timeline. (Not until seen on the USS Defiant (DS9) toward the end of the Dominion War.) Furthermore, more conventional, window-style viewscreens (or “viewers”) were regularly used for communications by the Federation and other starfaring races and unions it had dealings with at least through the late 24th century. Yet, not only did the DIS pilot show Starfleet ships like the Shenzhou and Europa employing this holo-tech, so did the Klingons. So, are we supposed to assume that the holographic method would be universally abandoned for some reason within the next 10 years? Or, do we just ignore it and chalk it up to “This ain’t the ’60s anymore. Get over it.”?

USS Shenzhou

That said, here is an interesting note from Memory Alpha, which I did not remember:

“While it is a subtle effect, the viewscreen seen throughout ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ clearly displayed 3-D images. This effect was created in some scenes by providing multiple angles on the viewer, with the image on screen displayed at a corresponding angle, rather than a flat, single angle shot.”

Now for a few observations and questions about key scenes…

In the opening scene, Capt. Georgiou and Cmdr. Burnham are shown walking through a desert area occupied by the (mostly) absent Crepusculans, whom they intend to save by unblocking their well — once they find it, that is. Now, Burnham is a xeno-anthropologist, so I guess her presence makes sense. (A little less so, since they are trying to avoid the natives.) But, why did the captain have to go on this particular mission, given the danger of being stranded? I’m also unclear on why they couldn’t have used ship’s scanners to find the well and then beamed down directly. As it was, a few Crepusculans — well, at least one we can be sure of — did see them, and that’s even before the USS Shenzhou swooped in from the clouds to beam up the senior officers. So, Starfleet’s well-intentioned Prime Directive — “No starship may interfere with the normal development of any alien life or society.“ — was once again unceremoniously cast aside.

Based on how many times the Prime Directive is violated by the various ST crews, either intentionally or unintentionally, it really should be renamed something like the Prime Suggestion-Unless-$#!+-Happens-and-You- Need-to-Save-Someone’s-Life-or-Avoid-a-Major-Inconvenience.

Re Burnham’s Insubordination/”Betrayal”: Why was Georgiou so incapable of understanding Burnham’s rationale for what she did, even if she disagreed with it? I and (I’m pretty sure) most of the audience were sympathetic to her reasons, and many of us would have done the same. But, then, I haven’t been trained in a (para-)military organization, which naturally stresses following orders and respecting superior officers. So, in a similar circumstance, maybe I’d feel differently. Thing is, Burnham was raised by Vulcans. Wasn’t her plan the “logical” thing to do, especially given the intel provided by Sarek? Subsequent events seem to have somewhat vindicated Burnham’s efforts, as well.

Re the “away mission” at end of Part 2: In typical Star Trek fashion (esp. TOS), they once again sent the two highest ranking officers on a near-suicide mission. Question: If they intended to abduct T’Kuvma, how were they going to do it? If by slapping a “tracer” for the transporter to lock onto, why didn’t Burnham do it? Was she really so undisciplined that she killed him to avenge the death of her captain/mentor? Plus, she shot him in the back!

Saru, Burnham, and Georgiou on Shenzhou bridge

Other than these incidents, I’m not going to whine too much about the plot and dialogue. I’ve seen some complaints, but I didn’t think either was horrible. It was a decent storyline, and it had some good scenes that were quite reminiscent of previous Treks. So far, I wouldn’t say the Trek-feel was really strong, but it’s there. I also have to remember that, as with previous Trek series, it takes a few episodes for the writers/producers to hit their stride and for the cast to really “inhabit the shoes” of their characters. I’m willing to overlook the annoying aspects (for now) and try to enjoy the show for what it is: new Star Trek!

By the way, the preview of subsequent episodes (the first of which has already aired, at the time of this writing) look to be even better than the pilot, and I am quite intrigued to see where they go from here, as a disgraced Burnham deals with the tragedies of the “Battle of the Binary Stars” and finds herself added to the mysterious Captain Lorca’s crew on the USS Discovery. Fingers crossed, count me in!

Review of The Defenders (Netflix)

“It’s been a long week.” — Jessica Jones, “The Defenders”

The much(?)-anticipated “The Defenders” mini-series has finally been released, capping off the first four Marvel/Netflix series. I finished watching it a few days ago, so I have a few thoughts to share….

You probably figured I’d put out some sort of review, right? Regular readers already know how I feel about the actors and these versions of the characters from my earlier reviews, so I won’t say too much on that front. (Too many to link to here; just do a search on “Netflix” or go to the Reviews page linked above.) I assume most people who are interested in the show have already watched it, but I’m adding a Spoiler Alert, anyway.

SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!!

Let’s start with… I liked the opening/closing credits music. It reminded me of a cross between those for Daredevil and Iron Fist.

I also really appreciated the getting-to-know-each-other scene at the Chinese restaurant, after our heroes survived their first team-up. It was reminiscent — probably intentionally so — of the shawarma shop scene at the end of Avengers.

Our heroes all remained very much in character. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones did their usual strong-guy/gal thing, smashing, slamming, punching, and kicking the crap out of The Hand’s lackeys. Nothin’ pretty. Luke also got to play “human shield” on occasion. (I think he actually enjoys it, despite the costs to his wardrobe.) Once he was on board, Matt Murdock / Daredevil re-confirmed that he’s the best fighter of all of them, in my opinion. However, he also takes some chances — specifically, re Elektra — that put himself and others in danger. Of course, the writers can make even foolish decisions turn out to be the “right” ones in the end.

Each of these three, at some point along the way, had their doubts about taking on The Hand, preferring to stay out of the “war” or just not ready to go “all the way”. But, they realized the threat that The Hand represented to the people of New York (and likely beyond), and they stepped up. They knew they might not survive, but they were the city’s only real chance. That’s what makes them heroes.

I would really love to see Daredevil pair up with Cage. That could be an awesome partnership. (Cage and Rand, not so much.)

Not surprisingly, I thought Danny Rand / Iron Fist was quite disappointing. Without the chi-powered fist, his fighting skills are still mediocre — clumsy-looking, even. Good thing The Hand seems to only have mediocre-level soldiers, rather than the ninja-assassins from the comics. (Elektra aside, of course.) He also continued with the part-petulant child, part-stranger-in-a-strange-land bit, while never understanding why people aren’t impressed by his “I am the immortal Iron Fist” claims, followed by tales of dragons and mystical cities. Sheesh! Either give it a rest, or at least show off the “fist” a bit earlier.

Colleen Wing’s presence mostly made up for that of her boyfriend. She’s attractive, passionate, willing to do what needs to be done, and brings some much-needed skill with bladed weapons to the good-guy side. She seems to start many fights by charging at her opponents, which doesn’t seem too smart to me, particularly when it’s a superior fighter like Bakuto. Then again, it’s not like she’s gonna surprise him/them, especially beginning from several feet away. Maybe the head-on approach is best, just to get the fight underway?

Some of the best acting in this series was in scenes with the Colleen and Claire characters, especially the one where Colleen briefly broke down in tears. Well done, Miss Henwick.

Claire’s how-did-I-get-myself-into-this reflections and lines were welcome as usual. She really is the heart of the (non-)team, and not just because she is the acquaintance that they all had in common. She also probably surprises no one more than herself that she is still in the thick of it and, well, not dead, yet. Like Colleen said, Claire’s a hero, too.

It was nice to see Malcolm, Trish, Karen, and Foggy, too, and to find out what they were up to since we last saw them. There wasn’t much for them to do in this story but hide out. But, it made sense in the plot to have them involved, since they were the closest associates of our heroes. However, it still seems odd to have them essentially camp out in the police station, when the cops never really understood what The Hand was or how dangerous they were.

Misty Knight… yowza! (Ahem, sorry.) The lovely Detective Knight returns! Yay! (“Detective Knight” sounds like a twist on a certain Distinguished Competition’s pointy-eared vigilante, doesn’t it?) She continues to be frustrated by our heroes, but she comes through in the end and supports, even aids, them. Yay, again! She pays a dear price for it, though, since she (finally) loses her arm. Triple-yay! That’s right, I’m glad she lost her arm, ‘cuz that means she will probably, eventually, get a super-strong bionic arm, just like in the comics. (I have a feeling her benefactor will be Rand, though, instead of Stark.) Then, she just needs to become a P.I. and partner with Colleen Wing, and I’ll be a happy man. (Especially if they get their own series!)

It sort of makes sense that Stick would be the one to unite — however reluctantly — our heroes. Or, at least, try to keep them together after that initial big fight. (Btw, since we already know these Netflix shows take place in the same world as the films, it would have made sense to have someone say something like, “Why not tell those Avengers guys? Let them HANDle it!” OK, maybe without the pun.) I’m a little surprised that they killed him off, but not real disappointed. For one, he was getting annoying; for two, with The Hand out of commission (thankfully, at least for now), there’s little reason for Stick to show up, and this should help our heroes — well, Matt, anyway… and Elektra — move on.

I hate to say it, but Sigourney Weaver looked… old. But, then I realized she’s 67, so she’s allowed to have a few wrinkles and such. Don’t know that I would have thought of her as a villain for this series. But, as the Alexandra character was written, she was a decent choice. We suspected they would bring Bakuto back, as well as the ever-present and deceptively powerful Madame Gao. The other two new Hand leaders — Murakami and Sowande — seemed formidable at first. But, the latter was too easily defeated, and the former was ultimately not that impressive.

I have mixed feelings about the whole Elektra thing. I mean, we already knew she was being resurrected by The Hand, so she’d probably be involved in another series storyline. And, it makes sense the way it was done and why. I think. Her betrayal of Alexandra was a surprise, which made for a nice plot twist. However, I don’t understand why she suddenly became so cold, amoral, etc. I guess it had something to do with her soul being affected (seared? tainted? infected?) by her brief time on “the other side”. I don’t remember hearing a good explanation for her behavior, but maybe I just missed it or didn’t put the pieces together.

If Elektra survived and if she eventually returns (though hopefully not for awhile), I hope she becomes more the assassin-for-hire that comic readers are familiar with. One with a damaged, yet still present, moral compass and ethical code.

The overall plot wasn’t bad, though it seemed to take a little while to get moving. Definitely room for improvement here and there, which might have been do-able if they had another episode or two to work with. Or, maybe fewer episodes would have forced them to tighten it up and get to the good stuff sooner. For the most part, though, the four heroes’ individual stories came together fairly well. It all flowed OK (though the earlier episodes were a bit rocky), and there was some good character development. (Even Rand.) Most of the interaction between our heroes was good, too, and I appreciated the occasional doses of humor.

Open questions: Why didn’t the NYPD file a report? Why wouldn’t they charge our heroes with terrorism? I’m not saying there isn’t a plausible way around it, with Jeri Hogarth (and Foggy, of course) coming to their aid. (Even “The Defenders” sometimes need a legal defense of their own, right?) But, the “wrap-up” at the end seemed too easy.

Overall grade: When feeling generous, I’m tempted to give “The Defenders” a solid ‘B’. Other days, I might go as low as a ‘C’. So, let’s split the difference and go with a ‘C+/B-‘.

My Top 8 Favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies

Arnold Schwarzenegger — aka “Ahnuld” — just turned 70 years old! Can you believe it?!

Ahnuld posing for *Sabotage*

For a man who is thick on accent and light on acting talent (though both have improved over time), Ahnuld has amassed an impressive number of movies over the past 40 years or so. He is one of the biggest action-movie icons of all time, not to mention a favorite of comedians and impressionists, and his success shows what big muscles, snappy one-liners, a handful of memorable roles, and a lot of hard work and ambition can earn you in Hollywood. Plus, he has that Ahnuld charisma. Despite his faults, he seems like a decent chap, too.

I wouldn’t say I’m his hugest fan, but I *do* like him and have seen (and mostly enjoyed) many of his films. So, I thought it might be fun to come up with a list of my favorites and share them with you. Sort of like what I did with Kurt Russell, but with a little less emphasis on the roles specifically and more on each movie as a whole. I limited myself to those that he (co-)stars in (as opposed to small supporting roles or bit parts).

You will notice that there aren’t any comedies on my list. This simply isn’t Ahnuld’s strong suit. I mean, he has some of the best one-liners in his action movies, but his “comedic stylings” just aren’t enough to carry a movie. If pressed to pick one comedy, I’d go with Twins, in which he co-starred with Danny DeVito. Certainly it was better than Junior (also paired with DeVito), Kindergarten Cop, or Jingle All the Way. (I never saw The Villain (1979), aka Cactus Jack, but I understand it wasn’t so great, either.) I hope the upcoming sequel, Triplets, which adds Eddie Murphy to the mix, will be reasonably entertaining and not rely on too much crude humor or stupidity.

You’ll also notice, I’m sure, that I don’t have either of the Conan movies (or Red Sonja) on my list, either. His first starring role was as Hercules in New York (1970), but the Conan role 12 years later was his first success as an action movie star. For some people, especially those who followed him as a bodybuilder, too, the Conan flicks are “classics”. Personally, I never got too much into the ’80s swords-n-sorcery subgenre (with a few exceptions), even those with a comic book tie-in. Another sequel, The Legend of Conan, has been announced, which will bring Ahnuld back into the title role. Do we really want to see a septuagenarian Conan fighting monsters and barbarian hordes? Hmmm, as long as he’s in decent shape, maybe…

OK, my Top 8 in chronological order…

The Terminator (1984): Any Ahnuld fan has to put this film in any Top X list. I mean, this is the one role that launched him to superstar status. Of course, visionary writer/director James Cameron and the rest of the cast — including Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Winfield, et al. — were also instrumental in creating this amazing sci-fi/action film. But, it was Ahnuld’s portrayal of the time-traveling, cyborg juggernaut that helped to define this movie. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role that would have had nearly the impact. (I have, however, tried re-casting it with a more current crop of stars, much as I recently did for Predator.) There were so many great, memorable scenes! Ahnuld’s Austrian accent wasn’t much of an issue, either, since the Terminator didn’t say much. And, of course, “Ah’ll be back.” has become such an iconic quote that everyone one knows it’s Ahnuld, even if they aren’t sure which movie it’s from.

Commando (1985): I wrote many months ago that I’d like to see a sequel to this film. Ahnuld played Col. John Matrix, a “retired elite Black Ops Commando [who] launches a one man war against a group of South American criminals who have kidnapped his daughter.” Co-starring Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya, Alyssa Milano, et al., this was the kind of story that makes you root for the hero to “get the girl” and show the baddies that he’s one guy they definitely should *not* have messed with. He brutally punches, snaps, stabs, slices, shoots, and blows up the bad guys in order to find and rescue his young daughter. Violent? That’s an understatement. Plenty of clever (or silly) one-liners, too. (Fun Fact: One of the writers was Jeph Loeb, who went on to write tons of comics and write/produce things like “Smallville”, “Lost”, “Heroes”, and many Marvel productions.)

Predator (1987): In a lot of ways, I suppose Major “Dutch” Schaefer could have been called Col. John Matrix. They are both muscle-bound, highly-skilled commando leaders trying to survive extremely difficult situations against deadly foes. (Kinda like a certain “John J. Rambo”.) This was another iconic film in the sci-fi/action subgenre, and one in which Ahnuld got to fire big guns, smoke big stogies, and show off his big muscles. Some pretty good quotes, too. (For example, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”, “Get to the chopper!”, and “You are one ugly m____rf____r.”) Great cast, cool concept, and Ahnuld gets to match wits, weapons, and muscles with a monstrous alien trophy hunter. What’s not to like?

The Running Man (1987): This one might surprise you, since it isn’t one of Ahnuld’s better known films. But, it sticks in my mind for at least two reasons. First, it’s one of those stories where the protagonist has to fight his way through a number of individual opponents to survive, but this time it’s a deadly game show. Second, the main villain of the piece is played by the original host of the “Family Feud” (1976-1985), Richard Dawson. (I don’t know who thought of that bit of casting, but Dawson actually did a decent job of it.) Maria Conchita Alonso and Yaphet Kotto are in it, too. The costumed and specially-armed foes Ahnuld’s character has to fight are Subzero (Professor Toru Tanaka), Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch), Dynamo (Erland van Lidth), Fireball (Jim Brown), and Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura). Fun, fun, fun!

Total Recall (1990): I never read the original short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, but I very much enjoyed the first big-screen adaptation, Total Recall. (The 2012 remake? Not so much, though it was OK.) Ahnuld’s ‘Douglas Quaid’ is just some working-class guy who suddenly gets his world turned upside-down, not knowing what’s real and what’s implanted memory. The answers seem to lie on Mars, so off he goes! The near-future looks a lot like today — a mix of shiny and grimy, pretty and nasty — but with some mutated humans and some cool tech thrown in. (You need to overlook a scientific impossibility or two, though.) Nice combination of sci-fi, action, and mystery/thriller, with a terrific supporting cast (i.e., Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside). You can just watch it for the action or ponder the deeper, moral & existential questions raised. A real rollercoaster ride and definitely worth the time, imo.

Ahnuld and Jamie Lee in *True Lies*

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): Ahnuld returns as another T-800, but this time one who is programmed to keep the target of another Terminator alive. Very similar yet different from the first one, the film was one of those rare sequels that is arguably as good as its predecessor. (Some might even say better. Not me. But some.) Of course, Robert Patrick’s portrayal as the nigh-unstoppable, liquid-metal T-1000 was a breakout role for him. But, it was still Ahnuld’s (and Linda Hamilton’s) movie. Lots of great action and suspense, along with some humor. Overall, a great movie, sequel or not.

P.S. Can you believe that Edward Furlong, who played young John Connor, just turned 40?!

True Lies (1994): I’m not exactly a fan of Tom Arnold, but he did a fair job here. I like Jamie Lee Curtis OK, and she made a surprisingly good wife for Ahnuld’s secret agent, ‘Harry Tasker’. Throw in Bill Paxton, Tia Carrere, Eliza Dushku, and even Charlton Heston, and you have a pretty solid supporting cast. Harry has to track down stolen nuclear weapons that are in the hands of fanatic terrorists, while also trying to keep his wife out of danger and still maintain his civilian identity. Loads of action and hilarity ensue, of course, and Ahnuld does well as a globe-hopping secret agent. It feels like a cross between James Bond and a classic Disney caper. Fun for all! (Well, maybe not youngsters.)

Eraser (1996): “A Witness Protection specialist becomes suspicious of his co-workers when dealing with a case involving high-tech weapons.” That specialist is Ahnuld… or, rather, U.S. Marshal John ‘The Eraser’ Kruger, who starts out thinking his only worry is his latest assignment — i.e., the relocation of ‘Lee Cullen’, played by Vanessa Williams. Poor Kruger ends up going on the run with Lee, as they try to avoid being captured or killed by some misguided and/or corrupt Marshals and other law enforcement. In addition to Ahnuld and Williams, you have James Caan, James Coburn, James Cromwell, Robert Pastorelli, Danny Nucci, Mark Rolston, John Slattery, et al. It’s another terrific group supporting Ahnuld and making for a gripping, pulse-pounding action/drama/mystery movie. (Oh, and that alligator scene…!) Two thumbs up!

Of Ahnuld’s more recent films, as of this writing I have not yet seen Escape Plan (2013) (with Stallone), Sabotage (2014), Maggie (2015), or Aftermath (2017). I need to add them to my movie queue, I suppose. Who knows? Maybe after watching them, I’ll be able to round out my Top 10….

What are your favorite Ahnuld movies and why?

Black Panther Will NOT Be the First Black Superhero Movie

I don’t know about you, but I was quite impressed with the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War. The trailer for his solo movie looks good, too, so I’m looking forward to it. But, apparently, some are touting this as the first black superhero film, and that’s simply not true. (How quickly they forget!) Someone in a Facebook group I belong to (“Geeks Under Grace Community”) brought this up this past weekend, and a few of us had fun coming up with movies from the past three decades where the lead character was a black superhero. Here’s what we came up with (in chronological order):

ABAR: Black Superman (1977) — OK, no one in our group came up with this one. I’d never heard of it, either, until I did a little extra research for this post. As part of the blaxploitation trend of the times (see Honorable Mentions below), this flick was about “the brothers” fighting against injustice at the hands of racist Whites and crooked politicians. “Upon moving into a bigoted neighborhood, the scientist father of a persecuted black family gives a superpower elixir to a tough bodyguard [played by Tobar Mayo], who thus becomes a superpowered crimefighter.” According to one IMDB reviewer, “The movie is actually racist in that it makes every single white person racist against blacks.” Also, “[Abar’s] powers consist of making a constant ‘swoosh’ noise every time he does something seemingly supernatural, and these things are downright hilarious. [For example, he] sees teenagers getting high and wasting time, so he turns them into college graduates (complete with the outfit!).” Despite all this and some atrocious acting, it’s one of those so-bad-it’s-fun movies (watched in context of the times, of course).

The Meteor Man (1993) — Robert Townsend starred as ‘Jefferson Reed’, a “high school teacher from a troubled inner city Washington D.C. neighborhood [who] becomes a super-powered hero and takes on the gang that has been terrorizing his streets.” Sounds somewhat like “The Greatest American Hero” TV series from the early-’80s. Anyway, this action-comedy wasn’t exactly a big hit critically or otherwise, and it lost money, but I think it does have its fans. (I confess, I never saw it.) Lots of familiar faces in this one, including Eddie Griffin, Marla Gibbs, Robert Guillaume, James Earl Jones, Don Cheadle, Bill Cosby, and Sinbad.

Blankman (1994) — This one sounds even sillier, which is probably why I didn’t watch it, either. As per the synopsis on IMDB, “Darryl is a childlike man with a genius for inventing various gadgets out of junk. When he stumbles on a method to make his clothes bulletproof, he decides to use his skills to be the lowest budgeted superhero of all.” One reviewer said, “How could you not enjoy this movie? It was actually enjoyable to watch Damon Wayans’ character make all these far-out gadgets… some of which look totally outlandish, but actually make sense! Sure, the comedy may be a little too goofy for some, but in the end, it helps.” So, maybe I will check it out… when I’m in a goofy mood.

Spawn (1997) — I liked it! It wasn’t great, mind you. But, as I recall, at least it was fairly faithful to the Image Comics series by Todd McFarlane. (It has been a long time since I’ve seen it, though.) The cast was pretty good — Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen, D.B. Sweeney — and the F/X weren’t bad for that era. (Hopefully, they’ll be even better for the upcoming remake.) Its IMDB rating may not be much better than Meteor Man‘s, but it did OK at the box office. It was also the first serious superhero film with a black lead. (Yes, I know Abar was meant to be “serious”, but it was a low-budget, ’70s cheese-fest.)

Steel (1997) — Premiering two weeks after Spawn was this travesty. Starring Shaquille O’Neal, about the only thing this movie retained from the comics was that the main character is a large black man, an engineer, who builds himself a suit of armor to fight bad guys in. Otherwise, it had no connection to Superman and the rest of the DC Universe. As one reviewer put it, “This film is so bad it reaches a certain quality of lousiness only reserved for the very worst of bad ideas. I mean – Shaquille O’Niell (sic) in a steel suit with a super weapon made from the contents of a lost-and-found at the scrap yard? Please!” Not even the talents of Annabeth Gish, Judd Nelson, or Richard Roundtree (the original Shaft!) could save it.

Blade (1998) — NOW we’re talkin’… The tale of the half-vampire/half-mortal slicing and dicing evil vampires in defense of the human race, while fighting his own (un)natural urges, was the real deal. As one fan put it, “[F]inally my prayers have been answered with Blade. This movie pops right out of the pages onto the screen with sheer violence, blood, martial arts, weapons, fire, the good against evil, etc. Yeah sure a lot of action flicks contain all these goodies, and most of them have bombed. But not Blade, the movie was filmed just right, not going overboard, delivering a good length and never a dull moment.” Wesley Snipes’ bad@$$ery was exactly what was called for, and his co-stars were great, too! As usually happens, the sequels (Blade II (2002), Blade: Trinity (2004) weren’t quite as good, though Blade II performed even better than Blade at the box office. I really need to watch this trilogy again….

Catwoman (2004) — “A shy woman, endowed with the speed, reflexes, and senses of a cat, walks a thin line between criminal and hero, even as a detective doggedly pursues her, fascinated by both of her personas.” This film was another incredibly disappointing adaptation of a comic book character… sort of. I mean, yes, there’s the feline-themed criminal/heroine who attracts the particular interest of a detective. Beyond that, she was virtually unrecognizable as the DC Comics character she was supposed to be. Also, as one IMDB reviewer said, “It was poorly acted, predictable, unenthralling, clichéd nonsense. And that was just the first half hour, at which point, for the sake of my brain and stopping it melting with the sheer tedium, I walked out of the cinema…. Utterly abysmal”

Hancock (2008) — This is actually one of my favorite Will Smith films. If you’re unfamiliar, ‘Hancock’ is a powerful superhero “who has become a joke because of his alcoholism and clumsiness. He has also become the most hated man in Los Angeles. Though he has saved many lives, he also destroyed a lot of property, costing the city millions every time he goes into action. When he saves the life of PR expert Ray Embrey from an oncoming train, the executive is thankful and believes he can restore Hancock’s image as a true superhero….” I would modify that to say it was his being a super-jerk (which was connected to the alcoholism) and recklessness (not clumsiness) that made him so hated. This one was a lot of fun! In fact, I just re-watched two trailers for it, and now I’m in the mood to watch it again. (Adding it to my list…)

Honorable Mentions:

The Last Dragon (1985) — The ’70s & ’80s had several movies with black (anti-)hero protagonists. I think it was a subset of the “blaxploitation” (sub)genre. There were private detectives (e.g., Shaft), drug-dealers trying to leave “the life” (e.g., Super Fly), vengeance-seeking former Green Berets (e.g., Slaughter), martial artists (e.g., The Last Dragon, Black Samurai), even a vigilante nurse (e.g., Coffy). But, they weren’t exactly superheroes, so they don’t really qualify here.

Black Cougar (2002) — I never saw this one, which apparently went straight to video. It sounds a bit cheesy to me, but if you’re in the mood….

So, as you can see, 2018’s Black Panther will *not* be the first black superhero film, nor the first one by Marvel (since ‘Blade’ is a Marvel property). It won’t even be the first good superhero film with a black lead. I can’t help but notice, though, that the three best films above (i.e., Spawn, Blade, & Hancock) were about violent anti-heroes with bad attitudes. (Well, at least part of the time.) Is that a commentary on the movie-going public, or about the studios? Or, was it simply that those are characters that writers enjoy writing and actors enjoy acting? Or, maybe it’s just coincidence? Maybe a little of all of that? I dunno…

I’m really glad that Black Panther will get the full Marvel treatment, headlining his own dramatic, big-budget, action-adventure (and non-comedic) movie. Even better is that it will take place in Wakanda, the mysterious African nation that Black Panther (aka King, formerly Prince, T’Challa) now rules. It will be a great opportunity to not only see a much different region of the Earth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it will allow audiences to experience the very different cultural environment (including warring tribal factions) from which this particular hero comes.

Hope you enjoyed this little historical review. Did we miss any? Let me know if you come up with another….

Review of Iron Fist (Netflix series)

“You are the worst Iron Fist ever.” — Davos

I had originally meant to do a “Mr. Zeus” installment this week. But, I decided I’d better do this review while the show is still relatively fresh in my mind. Some of my comments may be briefer or less systematic than usual. We shall see…

For the most part, I’m going to ignore the many missing or changed details in this version of Danny’s becoming an orphan, the Rand connection to K’un-Lun, the introduction of Colleen Wing, etc., from the comics version. Unfortunately, the bulk of my comments will still probably be negative, so allow me to start with something positive: I liked the opening credits. The music was good, with a sort of Asian/mystical feel to the electronica vibe. The dark-ish mood and swirling, inky effect with the semi-slo-mo kung fu guy worked for me. I don’t know if that guy was real or totally CGI, but he looked like a good fit for Danny/Iron Fist.

Speaking of which, as you might guess from my earlier fan-casting for the title character, I thought Finn Jones was all wrong. True, the studio didn’t cave in to demands to make the character Asian. Jones is also the right age, height, and has blonde hair. But, Iron Fist should’ve been more muscular and athletic looking, and his hair should’ve been cut shorter and straight. (And get rid of the beard, too.) As for the portrayal of Danny, I don’t know whether to blame Jones, the writers, or the directors — probably a bit of all of them.

SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER!

Finn Jones as Danny Rand

Danny’s seeming naivete and other mannerisms were annoying, as were his fits of anger and going off half-cocked at the end. He acted like a child. And what were those “episodes” toward the end, when he’d grab his head and his vision got blurry (or, at least, ours did)? Sometimes, he had a memory flash from the plane crash or K’un-Lun. What was that about?

We never really got satisfying answers either for Danny’s abandoning of K’un-Lun or even for Colleen’s going against her own principles when she did the cage matches. In fact, motivations in general were a weak point.

Danny’s fighting skills were, shall we say, rather underwhelming. Dull. Poorly choreographed and/or poorly edited. If it wasn’t clear before, the last couple episodes confirmed that he had a *lot* more training to do. But, imo, he should never have received the powers and responsibilities of the Iron Fist (w/ tattoo) at his current skill level. He should have been even better than Daredevil, but at this point, I think DD would put him down easily.

He says that he spent years training in martial arts, which includes controlled breathing *and* controlling his emotions. A minute later, he’s freaking out over air turbulence, and Claire has to calm him and get him to focus. What?! Same goes for his anger issues.

If (like he told Ward) the only time he drove a car was as a 10yo on his dad’s lap, how is Danny driving around NYC on his own a couple days later? For that matter, if he’s been stuck in extradimensional K’un-Lun for 15 years, why does he seem so unfazed by — even familiar with — NYC? A few familiar buildings and landmarks, sure. But, I’d like to have seen more fish-out-of-water behavior.

Casting for Colleen was good. Jessica Henwick is certainly an attractive woman of mixed Asian & Anglo ethnicity with martial arts skills. In fact, she was much more impressive in that area than Danny was. (She showed what she could really do, even without the sword, in those cage matches!) On the other hand, she’s too short and her hair is supposed to be medium brown to auburn. Still, she was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing series. (I’ll even forgive the fact that Danny’s supposed to have a romantic relationship with Misty Knight, not Colleen. That is, if they wanted to stay faithful to the source material. In the Marvel-Netflix world, though, Colleen is a better match for him.) Claire (Rosario Dawson) was another one. It was nice to see her involved and continuing to connect the various series together. Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss) makes a couple of welcomed appearances, as well.

Not sure about the Meachums, as I don’t remember that much about them from the comics. I will say, though, that that is one supremely dysfunctional family! I despised the manipulative Harold (David Wenham), who treated his son like $#!+ — and that was even before the, er, violent physical exchanges. Of course, he was supposed to be a total jerk, so… well done! I thought I was gonna really hate Ward (Tom Pelphrey), too, but I ended up just pitying him. I wanted to like Joy (Jessica Stroup) more, and she had her moments, but she ended up disappointing me, too. (Especially the final scene.)

What to make of Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho)? She is formidable, but inconsistently so. One day, she exhibits the ability — presumably through focused chi or some such thing — to “knock” someone several feet when she is standing several more feet away from them. (Think telekinetic “shove”.) A day or two later, though, she’s all scared when Danny charges her and she doesn’t even try to defend herself. What’s up with that? Was the latter behavior merely an act in order to give her more opportunities to get in the heads of our heroes?

I question the wisdom of using The Hand again as the “big bad”, especially since we know they will show up in “The Defenders” and/or season 3 of “Daredevil”. Surely, the writers could have found another evil organization to use from Marvel’s stable or even created a new one. Even though there was the interesting twist toward the end with the competing factions, I feel like The Hand was underutilized except as another connecting thread with the other shows. Their fighters weren’t very impressive, either, and they’re supposed to be among the deadliest in the world.

I hesitate to delve into the various other issues with the plot. Instead, I point you to this excellent review by Mike Floorwalker at Looper, which I fortunately read as I was finishing this up. He briefly discusses plot holes, inconsistencies, plodding development, lack of humor, “shoehorned-in moral conflict”, et al. In my opinion, most of his observations are right on the mark.

A few quick, final comments…

o Interesting casting for Davos (Sacha Dhawan) and Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez). I wouldn’t have gone that way, but I suppose they did adequate jobs. Physically not very impressive, though. No clue why Davos, who I always thought was East Asian in appearance, is played by someone of Indian descent with a Manchester accent, either.

o There was not enough of K’un-Lun, and I think there should have been flashbacks of Danny training with Davos (since they changed the Davos character and made him Danny’s peer) and under the instruction of Lei-Kung the Thunderer.

o The “iron fist” F/X was decent, I suppose.

As usual, I really wanted to like this character/series, especially with its connection to the other Netflix series. It could have been spectacular. Unfortunately, it fell *well* short of its potential. I got the feeling that the series’ creative minds might have known the basics about Danny Rand / Iron Fist — they had some facts about his history, abilities, etc. — but they didn’t really understand the character.

If I were to grade the four series, I’d give “Daredevil” an A-, “Jessica Jones” a B-, “Luke Cage” a B or B+, and “Iron Fist” a C- (and that might be a bit generous). I haven’t read a lot of other reviews, but from what I have heard/seen, the general consensus agrees with me. I just hope that the creators learned something from the criticism and make some positive changes for “Defenders” (though that has already filmed) and any future Danny Rand / Iron Fist appearances.

P.S.  We never saw the iconic costume, either. (That yellow & green robe doesn’t count.) At this point, I’m sort of glad.

Quick Reviews of Legion and Grimm (TV shows)

TV series come an go. Sometimes you really get into them, and other times you wonder why the heck you’re wasting your time. (Well, I do, anyway.) Without going into a lot of detail, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about one brand-new show that just finished its first season (“Legion”) and one show that just finished its sixth and final season (“Grimm”). Just f.y.i., in case you haven’t watched them, yet, there are a few spoilers below….

Legion

Bizarre. Freaky. Surreal.

Keller, Stevens, & Plaza

Those are the predominant descriptives that come to mind for the 8-episode series that ended a few days ago. I really wanted to like it, and there were some parts and aspects that I did like. But, for the most part, I have to say I didn’t care for it. It was one of those shows that I was determined to see through to the end of the season, but I didn’t look forward to it each week. (“The Expanse” and “Humans” were like that for me, too.) Some episodes were better than others. But, overall, there was too much weirdness and not enough action, for my taste. It’s not that it creeped me out; it just wasn’t my thing.

There was a very different vibe and, I think, pacing with this show than most. I didn’t care for most of the psychiatric ward stuff, though I understand that it was an integral part of the storyline. I *think* it was supposed to be set roughly in the early ’80s, though the fashion and music seemed mostly a mix of ’60s & ’70s. Of course, show creator/writer Noah Hawley did warn us,

“It’s a little more of a fable in my mind. If you were to say, ‘Where is it, and when is it?’, it’s not exactly clear, I think. And a lot of it is because [David]’s not exactly clear. It’s the world as perceived subjectively on some level.”

We were promised “numerous split personalities — each commanding a different aspect of his power”, which we never got to see. (Maybe in season 2?) There were a couple scenes in which David acted more psychotically, which gave us a glimpse of what Dan Stevens could do with the truly crazy and violent version of Legion from the comics. I like that they did make the connection to the comics after all, even if they didn’t name any of the heroes. (I.e., animated stick-figure of his biological father looked/acted like Prof. Xavier; main baddy was X-Men villain Amahl Farouk (even if he did look more like a circus freak), which I figured out shortly before they revealed/named him.)

I liked Rachel Keller as the semi-tragic ‘Syd’ (partly based on X-Men’s Rogue, maybe?). I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything else, but she reminds me a lot of Gillian Jacobs. Aubrey Plaza’s portrayal of ‘Lenny’ was… weird; but, then, so was ‘Lenny’, so maybe that’s a good thing. In general, I thought the acting ranged from just OK to really good.

Overall, an unconventional and peculiar, slightly disjointed ride. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably dig “Legion”. For me, I guess the negatives outweighed the positives. To quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Grimm

I liked “Grimm” from the start. With its various “wessen” creatures — many of whom were supposedly inspirations for myths, legends, & fairytales — living in plain sight, as it were, I considered it sort of a sister show (though very different) to “Once Upon a Time”. The premise was interesting, the plots entertaining, and the central cast was composed of complex characters dealing with odd and sometimes frightening situations. Some characters were lovably eccentric, others infuriatingly two-faced, and the couples (when they were couples) were adorable. Besides that, I had a bit of a crush on Bree Turner’s ‘Rosalee’ character.

“Grimm” cast

So, I was understandably concerned that the show’s end be properly satisfying (and, mostly positive). I was disappointed at first that the show was ending, but I came to realize that it had probably run its course and should end before the writing, etc., became stale. I didn’t like the fact that it was only given 13 episodes for its final season, but that was better than the 6-episode final season that “Nikita” got to wrap up its plotline(s). I was a bit surprised when “Grimm” season 6 debuted, because I thought the final episodes would be about “Black Claw” and wessen rising up and taking over the world — or, at least, major cities and corporations across the globe. That’s where I thought the story was going. But, either I misunderstood, or the writers changed their minds and decided to go in a very different direction.

They did wrap up some plotlines, while also introducing a few new wessen. I thought the mysterious & powerful splinter of wood was something totally different than what they went with. (Maybe they thought my idea was too obvious?) And, of course, it played a major part in wrapping up the final story. There were a couple times during those last couple episodes that shocked me and had me thinking they’d be ending on a very dark, heart-breaking, and foreboding note. But, I was pleasantly surprised at how it all worked out. I will say that it was a little odd and sudden-feeling. It wasn’t “perfect”, and there remain a few unanswered questions. (I’m trying not to give the finale away by saying too much.) Perhaps, the writers were just too rushed to squeeze everything in at the end? In any case, and for the most part, I enjoyed the “Grimm” series finale.

I have taken pleasure in watching this show — equal parts gruesome and delightful — over the past 5 1/2 years. I became quite fond of the characters, too. (Well, most of them.) And I appreciate that they were able to go out on a high note and before jumping the shark. (Hey, that might’ve been a cool wessen!)

Leb wohl, meine Freunde!

What I’ve Been Watching II: Swords, Tats, and Amnesiacs

“One: What’s your name?
The Android: I possess no personal designation.
Six: Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot of that going around.”

Over the past couple months, I finished watching the first seasons of three new TV series that I thought you all might be interested in. (Of course, maybe you’re already watching them. I dunno.) As it happens, they represent three subgenres (or more) and, as I realized later, they are all tied together.

Well, no official ties, which would be kind of difficult, given that they are on different networks. But, I noticed plot elements that connect them… sort of. The stars of “Dark Matter” (Syfy) — the characters, not the actors — are amnesiacs and one of them wields a sword; one of the main characters in “Into the Badlands” (AMC) wields a sword and has lots of tattoos; and the central character in “Blindspot” (NBC) has lots of tattoos and is amnesiac. See the thread? Well, I thought it was interesting….

BLINDSPOT-- Pictured: "Blindspot" Key Art -- (Photo by: NBCUniversal)

Blindspot: Some of you might remember that I already wrote about this series in the first “What I’ve Been Watching” post back in January. Of course, at the time I had only watched 2 episodes, so it was just my first impressions. I repeat here my opening description: “The lovely Jaimie Alexander (“Kyle XY”, Thor) plays a mystery woman with amnesia and tattoos all over her body. The tattoos lead to (potential) prevention of crimes and acts of terrorism, and Sullivan Stapleton (“Strike Back”) is the FBI agent assigned to her case.” [Note: There are other members of the team, too.] I then went on to express concern about the story already revealing some of the mystery of “Jane Doe”‘s past.

I stand by what I said then about my preference for waiting several episodes before doing this. But, by spreading out pieces of the mystery via multiple flashbacks and occasional revelations to Jane herself, they have done a pretty good job of keeping the audience engaged and wanting more — sort of like “Lost”. Of course, there is still plenty more to reveal, as I’m sure they are doing now in Season 2. There have been twists, subplots, and confrontations along the way to heighten the tension and the anticipation factor. My only real gripe is that I wish Alexander would/could show a little more range in her acting; on the other hand, many real people have a limited range of expression, too. Maybe that’s just how she’s playing the character….

into-the-badlands-poster-on-parchmentInto the Badlands: I really wasn’t sure what to expect for this show. The genre-mix is post-apocalyptic feudalism with martial arts and a slight Western flair. It follows Sunny, the regent (i.e., chief clipper, or warrior/enforcer) for Baron Quinn, and M.K., a lost boy with a dark secret, who wants Sunny to help him reach a legendary city beyond the Badlands. Of course, considering Sunny’s job, his murderous and slightly paranoid boss, and all the scheming and precarious alignments between barons, there just doesn’t seem to be a good time to sneak away. Factor in Sunny’s girlfriend, Quinn’s family and health issues, the baroness (Emily Beecham’s “The Widow”) looking for the mystery boy, etc., and things get quite complicated.

Hey! I just remembered that M.K. seemed to be missing some memories of his childhood, so he fits the amnesiac thread, too.

I found myself equally intrigued by what might happen next and frustrated that Sunny and M.K. still hadn’t managed to plan, let alone carry out, their escape. (Yes, Sunny does eventually decide he wants to leave, too. If only….) The talented Daniel Wu (Europa Report, Warcraft) exec produces and plays Sunny, which gives him an opportunity to show off his sword-handling and other Wushu skills. Baron Quinn is played with sadistic glee by Martin Csokas (LotR: The Return of the King, Kingdom of Heaven). It really is a fascinating concept, with all the personal and political intrigue, and it needs a larger canvas to give one the full picture. Maybe the second season will do that.

dark-matter-posterDark Matter: Originally, I was going to talk about “The Expanse”. But, I lost enthusiasm for the show about half-way through. I followed it with “Dark Matter” and enjoyed this one much more. I fully admit that the other show is more complex, but that was actually part of the problem for me. I was in the mood for a sci-fi show whose premise and environment I could grasp relatively quickly and whose main characters I could (mostly) like. That’s why “Dark Matter” fit the bill.

The pilot opens with six individuals awakening from stasis, the only inhabitants on a medium-sized spaceship in the middle of nowhere. They have no memories of who they are or how they got there. Despite the fact that we (and they) discover in a later episode that they are a rag-tag team of mercenaries with serious criminal pasts, and two of them are not easy to get along with, they are still an intriguing and generally likable crew. Each is a very different personality type with a certain set of skills, and they somehow manage to work together (usually), as they search for answers about their pasts and try to survive the present. The crew each also struggles internally with what they were and what they want to be, now that they essentially have a second chance at life. It makes for some fun episodes. Oh,… they also have a “female” android to help pilot and maintain the ship, monitor sensors, etc. She has turned out to be a valuable member of the crew and an intriguing character, as well.

I realize that by comparing it to a “more complex” show, you might assume “Dark Matter” is poorly written and has two-dimensional characters. But, that would be a mistake, ‘cuz it isn’t and they aren’t. Also, despite what some have said, I think the F/X — minimal though they may be — are just fine.

Action, mystery, suspense, drama, romance — it’s all there! These three series aren’t perfect, and I’m sure there are people who hate them or think they are stupid or boring. But, I (obviously) think they are pretty good and enjoy them for what they are — genre-themed, escapist fun. Maybe you will, too.